Monday, 29 August 2016

Last Words


William S. Burroughs Last Words (2000)
Towards the end of his life, Burroughs began to experience difficulty using a typewriter, and so James Grauerholz gave him bound, blank books in which he could write as journals, the end result of which is what we have here. What entries Burroughs wrote were more or less daily, so I was sort of expecting something like:

Today was pretty boring. I didn't do much. I watched a film in the afternoon but I can't remember what it was called. It had that Robert Morley in it, so it was probably an old one. Beans on toast for tea. Phoned Ginsberg but he wasn't in, as fucking usual. I might mow the lawn tomorrow.

Whilst there's an element of diary to this material, it's minimal and mostly written in terms that made sense primarily to Burroughs himself, requiring an appendix which decodes certain innocuous passages as referring to him spending the day shooting a pop video with U2, for one example. So it's some of that, along with rambling ruminations on private theories, observations, memories, short scenes written as fiction, and a lot of cats.

It has been suggested that Burroughs became a crazy cat lady in later years, although with just six cats on the clock, I'd say that makes him a relative amateur - a part-timer, if you will - which I state without judgement as a fellow crazy cat lady supporting a congregation of somewhere between twelve and fifteen depending on the weather and whether or not we're counting strays or other members of the b-team; but then anyone who likes cats, as Burroughs clearly did, is okay by me.

However, reading Last Words as the final journal of a crazy cat lady helps make some sense of it in so much as that this is Burroughs' writing at its most private and personal, and so his weaknesses are revealed here and there; and whilst he was capable of great insight into the human condition, the nature of civilisation, reality and all the rest, he had his flaws even without the whole accidentally shooting her indoors thing. Novels have been played to his strengths, but here we encounter blind spots, his being ill-equipped to grasp, for example, why Carl Sagan regarded belief in things which don't actually exist as unhelpful. Burroughs has always inhabited a magical universe, but here it becomes clear just how attached he was to some of that stuff, and how susceptible he could often be to complete bullshit for the sake of poetry. Of course this doesn't make him a bad person, and in Last Words it seems to render him easier to understand as a fellow human being, or at least enables us - and by us I mean me - to identify with him a little better. Above all, Last Words leaves us with the realisation of how much Burroughs cared, and not just about his cats, but about the world we live in, and how poorly we treat each other. Admittedly this isn't anything new, but the emphasis is different; although that said, it's still very much Burroughs with random swerves in the narrative adding up to something which leaves impressions rather than describing anything in any linear sense.

Last Words is confusing but also quite moving, and it makes me realise how much I miss this guy. I can't believe it's been nearly twenty years.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Martians, Go Home


Fredric Brown Martians, Go Home (1955)
I'm not sure quite what I expected with this one based on the somewhat iconic Frank Kelly Freas cover and title, but whatever I expected, the novel has surpassed by a large margin. The Martians have landed, and it looks as though they're planning to stick around; but rather than the traditionally warlike, martial, inhuman, or otherwise hostile invaders from the red planet, this lot are best described as a massive pain in the arse. No wall, locked door or other barrier can keep out these literally little green men, and no-one knows quite why they're here, only that their snide observations and continuous mockery are most unwelcome; and they address everyone as either Mack or Toots depending on whether you're a guy or a broad.

Martians, Go Home is a weird novel but a very funny one, a satire - albeit a satire without any one specific target, excepting possibly the science-fiction novel itself. Thankfully it's entirely free of alien visitors as metaphor for Communist hordes, or any of the other stuff which preoccupied the less-imaginative writers of the fifties. These Martians with their toxic opinions so freely and widely shared might represent something like the self-doubt of the collective unconscious, and perhaps Brown was therefore taking a pot-shot at our propensity for believing any old shit; but I may be over-thinking this angle, and it could simply be Brown taking a pot-shot at the propensity of science-fiction authors to write any old shit - particularly given that the main character is himself an author of science-fiction.

There's probably no way of going into further detail without giving away the ending, although if I've hinted at a certain recursive quality wherein characters understand themselves as interred within novels - well, it's not quite like that, although you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Martians, Go Home isn't some lost post-modern classic, and may even be designed to leave you feeling slightly foolish for entertaining such a notion; but it's thought-provoking, very funny, and reads roughly like Kurt Vonnegut as played by a James Cagney wiseguy; which is good.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Farthest Shore


Ursula LeGuin The Farthest Shore (1973)
My mother bought this for me one Christmas when I was a kid, specifically the newly published Puffin edition with a cover illustration by David Smee. It must have been 1976, I think. She was probably trying to expand my horizons a little, given that I'd been reading Target Doctor Who novelisations to the exclusion of almost everything else since 1973, but unfortunately it didn't work. I seem to recall liking the cover, but the story sounded old fashioned - as I probably would have described it at the time - and so I never read it; and then at some point down the line, I no longer had a copy.

Several decades later, I've read and enjoyed a couple of Ursulas, and enough so to want to read more and to wonder what The Farthest Shore was like. I keep seeing it on the shelves in Half-Price but my guilt over never having read the one I was given for Christmas is such that I really need that same Puffin edition; and to cut a needlessly long story short, I eventually found one.

The Farthest Shore was - at least at the time of writing - the third part of a trilogy, although a trilogy of three related books rather than a single sprawling saga split into smaller pieces, so my having read neither A Wizard of Earthsea nor The Tombs of Atuan doesn't seem to have presented any significant problems. Nor does the fact of it being a fantasy novel, which is nice, because it's a genre I usually dislike now that I've picked up enough to upgrade my definition from the simpler pejorative of old fashioned. The Farthest Shore, unlike most wizard-based fantasy fiction I've encountered, unfolds at a natural pace, to the rhythm of real life, you might say. Magic has lost its power at the far reaches of the realm of Earthsea, and so our two protagonists set out to discover why. They travel across sea, from island to island, and they encounter friends and foes as an inevitable consequence of their progress, and with none of the rigidly episodic feel I've noticed in lesser works.

That which happens may well happen for a reason, but we're never really sure if it's anything to do with the story or just part of the landscape. There's no suggestion of our needing to take notes because it will all add up to something or other in the climatic final chapter. There are no elves or dwarves or totemic sacred rings found mysteriously at the bottom of a judiciously purchased flagon of mead. Admittedly there's a wizard, a number of dragons, and persons returning from the dead, but LeGuin has made her own world here, which is nice because that's something at which she has always been exceptionally good. The magic of Earthsea - which is used sparringly rather than just splashed around for the sake of it - seems to contain a higher than usual philosophical content and concerns itself with ontological ideas of duality and balance, here specifically that magic is failing due to certain forces at large in the world of Earthsea, or because there's a disturbance in the force - if you prefer. There's a lot of it which puts me in mind of Mesoamerican lore regarding the workings of the universe, and specifically our binary concepts of good and evil simply being different points on a scale. Apparently though, this is a Taoist thing, and so the novel seems loosely pertinent to its time given the rise of the environmental counterculture in the sixties and seventies.

Anyway, as a novel The Farthest Shore seems possibly low on incident, but it doesn't really matter given the richly atmospheric texture; and its point is clearly communicated without anyone having to keep score of which goblins helped forge a mystic tampax from the sacred sheep of some place with a name containing no vowels. I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this had I made the effort to read it back when I was eleven, and it may even have sent me down an entirely different road, but I don't suppose there's much good to be had pondering over the what ifs.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

American Splendor: Another Day


Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel & others
American Splendor: Another Day (2006)
Ten years later and I only just discover that Vertigo published Harvey Pekar, which is about the one thing to inspire regret at my having lost touch with what was going on in the comics biz back then, and additionally means I can forgive Vertigo for driving me away with Grant Morrison's Unreadables and Garth Ennis' award-winningly awful Preacher, a comic predicated on the daringly innovative high concept of rural working-class Texans being uneducated with a tendency to marry their own sisters. Nice work, Garth - very brave.

Backtracking further, by 1989 I had finished a three-year fine art degree course and was living alone and on the dole in a damp single room bedsit in Chatham, Kent, sharing a house with ageing alcoholics and persons who were more or less just living there whilst waiting to die. The degree course had left me no more employable than I'd been when I started it, and had taught me only that I had nothing in common with anyone describing themselves as an artist. In June I went for an interview with Royal Mail, and was taken on as a postman, a job in which I remained for the next two decades; but meanwhile back in 1989, Bill Lewis - who lived in the same road - sold me a stack of American underground comics, including a couple of issues of Harvey Pekar's self-published American Splendor, notably issue three which included a story called Awaking to the Terror of a New Day wherein our man forces himself to keep on moving forward through a seemingly futile existence more or less identical to my own without slashing his wrists. That was when I realised that Harvey had something unique, or at least something which is generally in short supply. Harvey understood.

Autobiographical comics briefly became a big thing around the early nineties, although not many of those I saw were that good - the worst possibly being Joe Matt describing his heavy pornography habit in one comic in wilfully lurid detail, then spending the next issue describing his girlfriend's reaction to reading the comic describing his heavy pornography habit with masochistic relish. On the other hand, American Splendor coming from a sixties blue collar sensibility was always heads above other representatives of the genre - a unique hybrid which somehow really needed to be a comic rather than just prose, and yet which never bothered with any of the comic as arts cinema pretensions associated with the comic book's supposedly having grown up - even though that's exactly what this is, and far more so than whatever the latest reinvention of fucking Batman may be. Harvey told it like it was, making wonderful use of the timing and emphasis afforded by sequential panels, then stopping when he'd said what he wanted to say - no real punchline, often not even a moral, sometimes leaving us wondering what had happened to the rest of the story and all because that's how life works, I suppose. It may seem mundane, and it may fixate on details like what thoughts run through your head when asking a neighbour to come and fix your toilet because your eyes don't work so good and you've lost your glasses and all he needs to do is fix the chain back onto the stopper, but never mind comics, this stuff is poetry.

To further infect the review with autobiographical detail, I'd had a shitty day, suffering in the heat of Texas in August, worried about a stray cat which has stopped eating and generally succumbing to good old existential nausea. I'd been reading one of the worst things I'd read in a long time - and the quality of my reading always affects my general mood - and had become fixated on all those people who just can't find it within themselves to add anything good to the world, instead just leaving a path strewn with worm-casts of recycled culture. Who are these people, these product-sponge cunts - as Louis CK calls them? Why are they alive? Why must I be aware of [name of person who doesn't matter excised for the sake of diplomacy]'s existence, and of the blog he has written explaining what he was trying to say in his five-thousand words of generic fanfic delineating a further adventure of [description excised because I'm not having that fucking argument again].

So I picked this and sure enough I feel restored, because Harvey always seemed to understand. There's something profound in his comics, and I've now been reading them for nearly three decades, but I still find it hard to pinpoint what it is, except that I know it's something between the lines, or the panels, I suppose. It may even be as much what it isn't as what it is, if that doesn't sound too preposterous a proposition. There's something calming about Harvey's voice, it being something far removed from all the bullshit and the shouting, or which is at least able to understand and make sense of the bullshit and the shouting - just read Delicacy in this collection, two wordless pages illustrated by Hilary Barta, the comic equivalent of a silent film, I suppose, and packing such a punch that I laughed out loud. That's real art, and if you don't see that, then I feel sorry for you and for the fact that we have nothing to say to each other.

As with David Bowie - of all people - I somehow still can't quite believe that Harvey is gone, because a world which doesn't have Harvey Pekar in it seems weird and unfamiliar, but thankfully we still have his voice.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A Martian Odyssey


Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey (1962)
Many years ago, amongst the back-up strips in Star Wars Weekly was one of particularly surreal composition set on Mars and featuring all manner of imagined biological Martian oddities. The strip was split over a couple of issues and made a real impression on me, although not quite enough of one to facilitate my remembering what it was actually called once I'd flogged all my old black and white Star Wars comics to Skinny Melink's in Lewisham. For many years I imagined it was probably some Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, or maybe an extensively revised run through of Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, or maybe even Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

At last I have the answer, for the story turns out to have been an adaptation of Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey, one of five shorts collected in a paperback picked up purely because I liked the cover.

Weinbaum was a contemporary of Lovecraft, writing in the thirties and who died young, so his name seems to be fading from our collective science-fiction memory - at least judging by my not knowingly having heard of him despite the impression made on me by the aforementioned comic strip adaptation. This seems a great shame because this really is terrific stuff.

Weinbaum wrote stories rather than the adventures some of us have come to expect, beautifully crafted tales exploring scientific advances in thought pertaining to his era. It's mostly to do with biology and evolution, and he got some of it wrong, but the sheer pleasure he took in grappling with such ideas is obvious and addictive from the point of view of the reader; and unless it's just that I've been reading a lot of shite of late, vintage Weinbaum doesn't really seem to have dated just as the best of H.G. Wells has similarly endured with such elegance.

It's been a while since I enjoyed anything so much as I've enjoyed this collection, which has served as a reminder of what drew me to science-fiction in the first place.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy


Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
I've had an aversion to the work of Douglas Adams roughly since I discovered the internet and the disproportionately gushing praise with which his legacy is regularly hosed down. I've seen this particular title turning up in predictably cantankerous lists of the fifty most important science-fiction novels of all time, and I've partaken in bulletin boards upon which more than half of the subscribers are named after Douglas Adams characters, more or less guaranteeing constant repetition of jokes which were admittedly very funny when I saw them on telly back in 1981. Nevertheless, the sheer effort of finding oneself loathing something for crimes of popularity can become wearisome and is at least as stupid as grounding one's love of some cultural phenomenon on how many other people think it's great, so I like to take a bite out of my own bullshit from time to time, just to see how it tastes.

The last time I suggested the guy was maybe not the greatest writer who ever lived, the response I got was hate for Douglas Adams - incredible, with a presumed incredulous shake of the head. We were actually on the mean streets of the South Bronx - the Caucasian Doctor Who webzine editor and I - so the faux-ebonic inference that I be hatin' on Douglas Adams like some trick-ass bitch was entirely in context, because how can you not love Douglas Adams unless you just be hating on him just 'cause you mad-doggin', yeah? Sheee-it, blood, you be flossin' like a motherfucker.

My first encounter with Hitchhikers was the television series, closely followed by a stage production put on by drama students at Warwick University in November 1981. I thought it was brilliant - which is the actual word I used to describe it in my diary - and so I bought the books as they came out. I thought they were brilliant too, because they faithfully reproduced the experience of watching something on telly, and that's what mattered to me when I was sixteen. Oddly though, I found the third book less brilliant than the first two, and I didn't enjoy So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish at all. It seemed ponderous and conspicuously lacking in jokes, and even as a fairly stupid nineteen-year old I could tell that the exploration of Arthur Dent's existential disassociation was a complete fucking waste of time. This was therefore a revelation for me, having previously held that where one brilliant thing can be identified by a logo promising the recurrence of characters and situations, then the recurrence of those characters and situations will therefore always be of equivalent brilliance; which is why all Doctor Who was brilliant, and all things with Doctor Who written on the cover were also brilliant, and anything to the contrary was impossible.

Eventually I grew up, at last taking on board the essential punk rock truism that all of your heroes are usually just lucky arseholes, and that, as Jimmy suggests, you should question everything:

Could you tell a wise man by the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important than the stories that he tells?

Eventually I grew up, as I already said, or at least I changed - which is surely what you're supposed to do when you grow up. I still read kid's comics, and pretty much anything I want to read, but at the same time I've often found myself in opposition to a general tendency which reminds me painfully of my dumbfuck nineteen-year old self, and seemingly amounts to this thing featured in my childhood and must therefore be considered brilliant. It would be understandable were all those shows - because it's usually television we're talking about - of quality equivalent to, off the top of my head, Carnival of Monsters, but they never are and some bewilderingly average material has been getting itself reclassified as classic prior to sacred cowification because a fifty-something was able to remember it and hasn't really bothered to take an interest in anything outside whatever he experienced before the age of twenty. It's not so much that I worry about the fetishisation of Blake's fucking Seven crowding out anything more worthwhile, or at least slightly less generic; and it's not that I worry about the possibly inevitable end result of culture circle jerking itself into a formless mush of recycled commodity nostalgia; it's simply that I'm mystified as to how people can be satisfied with culture which simply isn't that good. I don't even mean stuff that's actually crap; I mean that which may indeed have done its job well enough thirty years ago, but probably shouldn't be held aloft as a beacon of excellence in the twenty-first century.

Douglas Adams was one of only two people outside of the usual six to write material for Monty Python's Flying Circus, and that was his background. He was a talented writer of comedy sketches performed on either stage, screen, or radio, and those were the fields in which he excelled, assuming for the sake of argument that you enjoy Adam's particular variation on Cambridge Footlights humour - Monty Python by way of Illuminatus! - seeing as I've now read the thing and can't help but notice its influence in more or less everything written since. As a novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reads like a series of sketches strung together with thematic linking material woven back and forth so as to present an impression of narrative progress which never quite finds its feet. The problems result in part from too many magic wands waved in welding disparate elements together, and too much reliance on details which only really exist for the sake of the jokes. The infinite improbability drive, for example, is funny, but not that funny, and it's really the only thing connecting the joke about blowing up the Earth to the one about the two-headed dude and the giant computer.

None of this would matter were Adams a bit handier with his biro, but the prose reads too much like a script for a series of sketches padded out by someone who has never written a book but feels sure that it can't be too difficult; and the thing is, whilst this stuff may well have been pure spun gold in real time, nailed down to a page of text it reveals its weaknesses, how little is actually there, and how repetitive it is; and it's very, very repetitive - over and over, the indignant surprise of an otherwise polite English clergyman confronted by the improbable, surreal, or outrageous; and an otherwise polite English clergyman who uses the word rather in every fucking sentence.

'Ah,' said Arthur, 'er...' He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman's husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.

Oh my sides. The references are characteristically middle-class and comically understated, the sort of thing you might reasonably expect from someone who hasn't really experienced much beyond the walls of the jolly old Uni, and who still regards the notion of students attending parties and getting drunk as essentially side-splitting. There are some decent theoretical physics gags, but nothing quite strong enough to dispel the faint aroma of dormitory japes, somewhat underscored by the presence of just a single female character in the entire book - and she's Zaphod's bird, someone whom Arthur might have jolly well bonked were it not for jolly old slings and arrows of outrageous jolly old misfortune. I wouldn't ordinarily give two shits about equal representation or points scored on the Bechdel test, but here it seems aggravatingly symptomatic of all that's wrong with this novelisation.

The thing is, none of this is inherently terrible, but if you're still pissing your pants at the idea of forty-two as the answer to life, the universe, and everything in 2016, then I'd say you really need to broaden your horizons. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a great radio show and television programme, but it makes for an underwhelming and clunky book of a kind which Terry Pratchett wrote about a million times better. As a novel, its stature would seem to rest on brand loyalty and what else you haven't read. It's readable, and Douglas Adams was not without talent, but The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy falls a long, long way short of being Asimov wearing a red nose and big yellow shoes.

Unfortunately, I was really hoping to be wrong about this one; and as for anyone reading the above while insisting that I am wrong, be happy in the knowledge that every other stupid fucker in the known universe agrees with you.

Monday, 8 August 2016

All Tomorrow's Parties


William Gibson All Tomorrow's Parties (1999)
Most of William Gibson's novels have been stylish gibberish so far as I'm concerned. Idoru was the first he wrote which I'd call readable, and Pattern Recognition was fucking brilliant, and this was the one he wrote after Idoru but before Pattern Recognition so you can probably extrapolate a working model of my expectations from that.

Unfortunately though, it's business as usual - elegant prose and startlingly vivid imagery adding up to a whole gang of barely distinguishable characters doing something or other for a couple of hundred pages, but you can't quite keep track of who they are, what they're up to, or why, and then it's over. Virtual Light told the story of a guy who finds a pair of magic sunglasses, and Idoru was about Bono from U2 trying to marry that princess from the Super Mario Brothers game, and this is part of the same saga. The guy with the magic sunglasses is working in a flying convenience store, and the kid from Idoru has detected a great disturbance in the force, and the Golden Gate Bridge burns down at the end for some reason. The rest is mostly informed by William Gibson bidding for collectible military issue wristwatches on eBay. Also in this novel he predicts 3D printers and Pokémon Go - sort of - so that's nice, I suppose, and occasionally there's an interesting observation:

'Instead of what?'

'Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilisation in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilisation went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.'

'Extinct?'

'We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to recommodification, not in the same way.'

So it's a novel about society and subculture, about that which moves from the underground to the mainstream and so on; or maybe that's just a tasty couple of paragraphs afloat on a sea of stylish Alphabetti Spaghetti. I don't know. I'm not sure even William Gibson knew.

Why you do this, William Gibson?